In Washington, DC, our favorite taco joint was an illegitimate business - a speakeasy in the sweetest Salvadoran woman’s tiny Mount Pleasant apartment. Its street name smacked of cloak and dagger - El Clandestino. The protocol for dining at this glorious hideout: stand outside an unremarkable, rundown apartment building on Park Road, dial a secret phone number, catch the set of keys dropped from a second floor window, climb one flight of dingy stairs to the cash-only ‘establishment’ and feast your ass off at a communal table for 10 where Estee’s tacos (and tamales) quietly stole the thunder of all DC tacos. Sorry, José, but these led the league. Her ingredients were fresh, the slow-and-low embrace of craft evident, and the most impactful ingredient was love. You could not help notice the choreography of passion taking place - as if she and her husband were doing a culinary piece of performance art. This was an exclusive indie food insider stop that delivered Oaxacan food highs that drew us back often. As a bonus, you could purchase other things from the chintzy shelves lining the living room walls: penicillin, a house dress, or maybe a bottle of generic Drakkar Noir.
There’s no denying that the illicit nuance of the whole thing lent a mystique to the experience that had us biased, but these days we look at the whole picture: it’s never just about the food. Kitsch went a long way for us here. Eventually, the narcissist culture of foodie social media permeated its walls and blew the secret up. Later Estee went legit, opening a spot on Mount Pleasant Avenue. Her tamales are strong but the tacos don’t bring the same slow-burn passion. Maybe outlaw life inspired her more back in the day.
Quietly opening in Charlottesville during the dog days of August, Barbie’s Burrito Barn entered our life and became the happy analog for El Clandestino. The unassuming little shack is tucked away on Avon Street in the shadow of the Belmont Bridge, just a stone’s throw deeper into the dead end from Champion Brewing where the graffiti splashes happily on the bridge’s underbelly and weed deals probably go down in the cave of the parking lot below. It’s a boutique, fast-casual spot where Barbie spends her days doing what she has done at home for over 20 years: slinging the freshest Baja fare for loved ones, a passion play she finally elevated to a seriously legit option for Southern Cal inspired Mexican. And like our beloved El Clandestino, BBB captures that same elusive ingredient that takes us straight back to the shanty on Park Road: clear and present love.
Barbie is a delightful ray of energy, all smiles, sometimes dancing a cute jig to an eclectic playlist (Arcade Fire, Pavement, etc.) in the kitchen that opens right up to the small dining area of two four-tops. Often her daughter, super friendly, is there helping her after school, and sometimes her husband plays sous. It’s as if you are in their home kitchen enveloped and welcomed into the aura of their family vibe. Just a big warm hug that eases the pain of it only being Tuesday night during a long-ass week.
"I love cooking and socializing with guests and seeing them happy when they walk out," Barbie shares between tickets. "I get to cook all day and it's what I love. You can't beat that."
The fare rivals and, in some cases, eclipses most of the usual praised suspects in town with so much fresh texture infused into the small menu of dishes. Ingredients like jicama slaw, chili-lime cucumbers, radishes, shredded cabbage, guacamole and salsas blended daily mesh perfectly with rich, slow-cooked pork or chicken in more than one dish: packed heartily into Tacos or gloriously stacked on the Guac Tostada. Meanwhile, plenty of places do a burrito bowl, but none touch the fresh punch that Barbie’s Chopped Bowl brings. It’s not a work of art visually but the whimsical blend of delightful chili-lime pickles and jicama slaw blended with fresh guac atop a bed of slow cooked pork and pintos, all garnished with a handful of house made tortilla strips (edible utensils) hits so good. You tell yourself it’s a salad and feel almost healthy eating it because it's all is so fresh. Finally, the headliner Burrito is the only dish that lacks the crunch factor of veggies - it’s all beans, cheese, and delicious slow-cooked swine. It’s sort of macho.
Recs + Rants
Alcohol Hack. Alas, BBB has no liquor license. Maybe soon, they say. Hipster sodas and water are available. So get it to-go and park at next-door neighbor Champion’s picnic tables where you can sip a legit range of beers with your BBB.
Manners not required. It's nearly impossible to crush anything on the menu with grace. Generally everything is messy so just dig in and enjoy the delightful chaos of this cuisine. If you kill a tree's worth of napkins after, we won't judge.
Lampo refugees welcome. It’s well documented that we at P+K we’re hardcore fangirls and boys for Lampo. It hasn’t happened yet, but depending on the night, if we couldn’t hang with the Lampo wait time, we’d consider catching a quick bite at Barbie’s, which is just a path through the brush and a short walk under the bridge away.
Cheapskate Approved. Your wallet gets barely scratched here. We’ve fed four quite well for less than $30 many times.